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So, You Want to Play the Tambourine?

Published by Kristin Stancato on 20th Aug 2014

Tambourines are back, with a vengeance. These seemingly simple percussion instruments are finding their way into the studio, the stage, into classrooms and even drum circles. The rising popularity of the tambourine is inspiring musicians everywhere to add the jingle of zils and the hip-tapping fun of these frame drums into every composition, performance and drum jam. This is the year of the tambourine, and we couldn’t be more excited!

Ok, tambourines never really went away. In fact, tambourines have been around forever. Ancient cultures depict tambourines in art, sculpture and the traditions passed down through generations. Bob Dylan and Eve have both celebrated the instrument with famous songs, and so many more artists have defined a genre or generation with this underrated, yet glorious instrument.

The tambourine is a staple of music, no matter what kind you listen to, and this iconic, ironic, deceptively simple styled instrument is like giving a magic wand (or circle, or half-moon) to the young, old and anyone in-between to bring forth the power of rhythm. Still, playing the tambourine is not as easy as everyone thinks, despite its presence in early childhood education classrooms, Grandma’s attic and the wedding tambourine you received from your cousin. Just like the countless variations of tambourines available today, there are different ways to play the instrument. The best part, as always, is finding out your own tambourine playing style.

How to play the tambourine:

The leg tap is the most familiar way to play the tambourine. Simply stated, you hold the tambourine in your non-dominant hand, curling your fingers around the bottom edge of the instrument (especially a tambourine with a drum head on it) while resting your thumb on the opposite edge of the frame. Then, in rhythm, you tap the tambourine against your hip or upper thigh (wherever is comfortable) in order to create its signature sound.

If your tambourine has a drum head, its best to tap as close to the frame as possible for a punchy, jingly tone with the right amount of decay. The angle matters, too, and can vary with each different tambourine, so, be sure to experiment for your best sound.

Tambourine rolls are pretty popular with the kids these days, and there are a fewdifferent ways to get this signature sound from your instrument. Much like the “leg tap,” if you hold the tambourine at your side, you can rotate your wrist back and forth to create the roll.

A seated tambourine roll requires little more than the ability to “drum” around the edge of the tambourine. Place the tambourine in your lap (drum side down, if applicable) and tap the edge of the instrument with both hands to create the roll sound you desire.

The final, advanced tambourine roll method requires a very strong thumb, a tambourine with a drum head and determination. Holding the tambourine in your dominant hand, be sure your thumb is on the drum side of the instrument. Hold and drag your thumb around the edge of the tambourine on the drum head, creating enough friction to jingle the zils.

Of course, you can always play your tambourine like a drum by setting it up on a stand and hitting it with drum sticks or mallets. That way, you get the natural accent of the jingles to accompany your amazing drum skills.

Since the dawn of time, tambourines have provided many a musician, vocalist and the toddlers of the world with a means of one-handed, percussive expression. All the cool kids have one and they know how to play the tambourine. As a tribute to forgotten cultures, or, just as a way to jam with friends, the tambourine brings the best of percussion into our lives, with a simple shake and a tap. Now, go forth and jiggle that tambourine in celebration of your own connection to the jingle-jangle that inspires us all.